Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguín says he’ll push for stronger community benefits packages from developers. Photo: Courtesy Jesse Arreguín
Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguín says he’ll push for stronger community benefits packages from developers. Photo: Courtesy Jesse Arreguín

Developers with projects in the pipeline can expect to be asked to provide more affordable housing and a stronger community benefits package before being approved, Mayor-elect Jesse Arreguín said Monday during a far-ranging interview with Berkeleyside.

Now that the self-described progressives have the City Council majority (see below for more details) the “previous approach” to development will change, he said.

“I do think the voters wanted a change,” Arreguín said at PIQ on Shattuck Avenue. “That’s one of the reasons I was elected by such a large margin. One of the issues I heard throughout the city of Berkeley was a concern about the major demographic changes, the changes to the character of the place, long-time businesses being displaced, the scale of development.”

“I think the voters of Berkeley want more equitable, responsible growth,” he said. “That is not to say everything is going to come to a grinding halt. We need to create more housing so, certainly, under my administration, we are going to encourage the construction of transit-oriented development in Berkeley.”

Currently, developers must make 20% of their market-rate units affordable or pay a $34,000 in-lieu fee into the Housing Trust Fund or a combination of those things. (Up from 10% and a $20,000 fee earlier this year.) Arreguín said that the nexus study Berkeley prepared on the amount developers could afford suggested that a 25% rate for affordable housing was feasible and he planned to push for that. However, he insisted he still supports the Downtown Area Plan and has no plans to push to revise it.

“We are not going to have a moratorium on development in Berkeley,” said Arreguín. “Things will still get built in Berkeley, but it’s going to be a very different dynamic. I know builders are concerned that we are going to undo the Downtown Plan, that things are going to come to a halt. That’s not the case at all.”

Jesse Arreguin will take over as Berkeley mayor on Dec. 1. Here is is at PIQ during a Berkeleyside interview on Monday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Arreguín will take over as Berkeley mayor on Dec. 1. He spoke to Berkeleyside at PIQ on Monday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Developers have already expressed some jitters. Mark Rhoades, who assists developers in getting projects green-lit from the city (and is now financially involved in some of those projects) said he hopes the new City Council majority does not kill projects by asking too much in fees, extractions, and mitigations. He pointed out that the Berkeley Unified School District will consider Wednesday levying a $3.48 per square foot fee on all new residential development and a 56-cent per square foot fee on new industrial and commercial development for new facilities.

“I have concerns,” said Rhoades. “What we have been doing up to now has been carefully balanced. Before we change it up we better know what we are doing. We want to make sure we are not killing the things that provide us the ability to build subsidized housing.”

Arreguín, 32, will become Berkeley’s first Latino mayor when he assumes office on Dec. 1. He decisively defeated his main opponent, District 5 Councilman Laurie Capitelli, 49% to 33%. Capitelli had served on the City Council for 14 years and was outgoing Mayor Tom Bates’ handpicked successor.

Capitelli was part of a council majority that had different ideas about development than Arreguín, and those differing philosophies became a major issue in the race. Capitelli and others have expressed concern that asking too much of developers would prompt them to flee Berkeley to do projects in other cities with less stringent rules. They also relied on academic studies that suggested that building market-rate housing with an affordable component was the best way to get more housing and thus maintain diversity and fight displacement.

At least two, if not three, new City Council members who were also elected share many of Arreguín’s views on asking for more community benefits and their views will now command the majority on many issues. They include Sophie Hahn, who won Capitelli’s old District 5 seat by defeating Stephen Murphy; Ben Bartlett, who won after City Councilman Max Anderson retired from District 3, and Cheryl Davila, who appears to have defeated District 2 City Councilman Darryl Moore, although the results have not been certified. Incumbent District 7 City Councilman Kriss Worthington, who also ran for mayor, has also pushed to extract higher benefits.

Arreguín’s election leaves a vacancy in his own District 4, which includes Berkeley’s downtown area. A special election to replace Arreguín will be held in February or March. Arreguín said Monday that he backs Kate Harrison, a public sector consultant who specializes “in evaluation of court, criminal justice, indigent defense and social service programs in the United States, Europe, Asia and Africa,” according to her LinkedIn page. Harrison supported Arreguín’s bid for mayor even though she has not always agreed with him, she said. For instance, she opposed his push to pass Measure R 2014, which would have drastically altered the Downtown Area Plan.

Ben Gould, a UC Berkeley graduate student who also ran for mayor, said he will be a candidate for Arreguín’s former seat. During his mayoral campaign, Gould said he spent a lot of time knocking on the doors of D4 so his name would be known.

Even though Arreguín ran an at-times negative campaign against Capitelli, launching a website called LaurieFacts that purported to reveal his opponent’s true character and paying to place that site at the top of search results (the site was taken down after the election) he said he wants to bring civility back to the council. He has already met with one member of the new City Council minority – Linda Maio – and plans to meet soon with Lori Droste and Susan Wengraf.

“I am committed to working with everyone and forging a collaborative relationship with everyone,” he said. “I don’t want this 6-3 dynamic to continue… I never thought it was a healthy working environment. Mayor Bates was a polarizing figure on council. That’s going to change.”

Droste welcomed Arreguín’s words, although she said she never considered herself in the council majority since she was not a “reliable” vote for any one particular bloc.

“I welcome Jesse’s words because I think Berkeley and the nation are hung over by the divisive rhetoric,” Droste said. “Jesse and I see eye to eye on 95% of things. Hopefully, we can have a respectful dialogue on areas in which we disagree.”

Maio sent out a statement the day after the Nov. 8 election: “I will work collaboratively with our new Mayor and Council, and will continue, as always, my efforts to support a positive vision for our city.”

To further that theme, Arreguín announced Tuesday that he is sponsoring a gathering Friday at Civic Center Park from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. It is a “community celebration of Berkeley’s shared values.” He encouraged people to wear tie-dye and help form a human peace sign.

“Let’s let all of our precious children, students and community members know that in Berkeley, we rededicate ourselves to a fair, progressive, inclusive and sustainable world,” read Arreguín’s press release.

Capitelli and the former City Council majority had believed that one of the best ways to generate money to build affordable housing was to approve multi-unit projects that paid into the Housing Trust Fund. Now the Nov. 8 election has given Berkeley additional tools with which to construct housing, said Arreguín, who appears eager to maximize them.

The passage of Measure U1, which increases the business license tax on rentals from 1.08% to 2.88% (a 166% increase) will raise about $4 million annually, which can be used for housing. In addition, Alameda County voters passed Measure A1, a $580 million bond measure for affordable housing, which will funnel another $15 million to Berkeley and will allow the city to apply for even more money.

Arreguín is meeting with non-profit housing groups to start planning ways to leverage these funds, he said. Some of the money should go to build the Homeless Center on Berkeley Way. He also intends to follow up on one of Capitelli’s campaign pledges, to construct housing for teachers and other middle-income workers. He will meet with school district officials to explore building housing on Oregon Street, he said.

Arreguín also wants to create additional incentives for developers to build inclusionary housing on site, including looking at a local density bonus and structuring fees that make building affordable units on site more economical.

In addition to housing, addressing issues around homelessness is one of Arreguín’s top priorities, he said. (His other priority is preventing the closure of Alta Bates Hospital.) He hopes to help Berkeley set up what San Francisco has termed “navigation centers,” where those without beds can come to stay, with their dogs and personal belongings, in an environment less structured than a shelter. Arreguín will be working with staff to identify unused warehouses or other spaces that could be used for such a facility.

While the City Council rejected the idea of allowing some homeless people to set up a tent city at Aquatic Park at its Nov. 1 meeting, Berkeley is still exploring whether there is a site far from homes, schools, and businesses that might work. His – and the city’s – preference is for people to be inside in the winter, however.

Arreguín was adamant that the impromptu homeless encampment that is currently set up outside City Hall and across the street from Berkeley High cannot stay.

“I am getting many complaints from parents about having it next to the high school,” he said. “It cannot stay there. It has to go.”

Arreguín mentioned some other goals:

  • During the campaign, Worthington pushed to have separate meetings for controversial issues. Arreguín thinks this is a good idea. He also hopes to improve meetings in other ways. He hopes that the City Council’s Agenda Committee will be more strategic about the order of items on the agenda not have 70 to 80 items to consider in a night. Arreguín wants to remove comments from the Consent Calendar, which often means the consent calendar sometimes takes hours to complete. Berkeley is about to adopt a new online commenting system for council items, and that should help City Councilmembers hear from a broader variety of residents and may make meetings more manageable. Arreguín also wants City Councilmembers to go around the dais in order and comment on measures which will “give everyone an equal opportunity to speak once.” On the second go-around, it can revert to its current parliamentary system, he said.
  • While the City Council and unions worked out a plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 in October 2018, Arreguín wants workers to have a “livable wage,” which is around $16.50. He pledged to work the business community and labor to create a phased-in increase, he said. “I recognize the fact that an increase in the minimum wage has an impact on businesses. We have to do it in tandem with ways to support small businesses.” Arreguín said he would like to see a revolving loan fund that businesses can tap into to expand, especially “for those facing displacement.” He wants to fix the city’s permitting process, too, as a way to lower business costs.
  • Berkeley is about to start a new round of negotiations with its police and fire unions. Arreguín said he is committed to creating parity in pension arrangements between those two departments. He also wants to make sure Berkeley workers are at parity with what workers in other parts of the region are getting paid. Arreguín also wants to create a “fiscal action plan” to plan to begin to make a dent in the city’s long-term pension liabilities. The city has made progress in that area in recent years by requiring non-public safety staff to pay 8% toward their retirement. He would like to take a portion of the transfer tax revenue and put it into a pension trust fund to prepay Calpers, he said.

Arreguín’s excitement about becoming mayor is apparent. He looks happy. He started to meet with Bates the day after the election, he said, and has been amazed at how much Bates, and Berkeley mayors in general, have to do.

“It’s a lot more work than a council person,” said Arreguín.

He told Berkeleyside that his long-time habit of meeting people at PIQ will end. The mayor’s office in City Hall will be the center of his activities. “I just won’t have time,” he said.

Arreguín is aware that a number of people regard his election with some alarm, and he had a few words that he hoped would alleviate fears. He wanted to make it clear that even though he was Worthington’s former legislative aide and Worthington has been a political mentor, “I was elected on my own initiative.” (Indeed, Worthington’s votes were irrelevant in the ranked choice voting process.) Arreguín is his “own man.”

“Some people may be concerned that ‘the radicals are taking over and are going to tear things down.’ That’s not going to happen.”

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...